Chelsea were booed off the pitch at Stamford Bridge after being held to a goalless draw by struggling Southampton, for whom young keeper Angus Gunn was outstanding on his Premier League debut.
Maurizio Sarri’s side dropped two valuable points in their bid to keep pace with the three clubs above them, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City, while a point for Southampton at a venue that has previously proved difficult for them, was a huge bonus.
It left Chelsea’s supporters deeply unsatisfied at their side, who lost their previous home game to Leicester. Sarri’s side are now 10 points behind Liverpool and four behind City, who meet at the Etihad Stadium tonight.
Yet there was a positive buzz around Stamford Bridge before kick-off, most of it about the signing of Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund for €60m, the young American winger is one of the hottest prospects in European football and Chelsea beat off a host of other clubs to snap him up, even though Sarri is happy to let Pulisic stay on loan in Germany until next season.
Sarri has said he wants more width, and with Pedro and teenager Callum Hudson-Odoi already injured, his options out wide were further limited when Willian limped off before half-time with a knee injury That was one of the few notable moments of a lifeless first half that failed to stir the Stamford Bridge crowd. It’s always a bad sign when the players can be heard above the supporters, but the natives in west London are getting restless and there are rumblings that ‘Sarri-ball’ is becoming as predictable and dull as the football Chelsea were playing in the final days of Antonio Conte’s reign.
The one shining light, of course, is Eden Hazard, who was once again head and shoulders above his team-mates and everybody else on the pitch. At one point it looked like it was turning into an individual duel between Hazard and Angus Gunn in the Southampton goal, as the young keeper denied the Belgian time and time again. The 22-year-old son of former Norwich and Scotland keeper Bryan Gunn was making his Premier League debut and showed why Southampton were prepared to pay €15m to prise him away from Manchester City.
Gunn looked confident and brave, a great combination for a keeper, and was far from overawed by the occasion. His first save came in the 12th minute when he kept out a close-range header from Alvaro Morata, who looked more of a ‘false-nine’ than Hazard had done when occupying the role in recent games.
Morata did get the ball past Gunn in the 70th minute as he took a pass from Cesc Fabregas in his stride and slotted home, only to be called offside, a decision that looked questionable when seen again on TV replays.
When the Spainiard had a clear run on goal moments later, he shot straight at Gunn. His best two saves denied Hazard either side of half-time. In the 34th minute, the Belgian took down Antonio Rudiger’s raking pass with one touch and shot powerfully with his left foot, but Gunn stood tall and stopped the ball with his face. He had earlier raced out of his penalty area to clear from Hazard, who was Chelsea’s main threat cutting in from the left.
It was just such a move that produced Gunn’s next fine save, in the 58th minute, when the young keeper did well to hold a powerful shot from the Belgian. Jorginho was next to test the keeper with a rising shot from 25 yards, but Gunn held the ball confidently above his head.
Southampton were on the defensive for most of the night, and had to rely on rare counter-attacks led by Nathan Redmond. Manager Ralph Hasenhuttl replaced the ineffective Danny Ings with Shane Long at half-time, and the former Cork City striker soon showed his pace, prompting Rudiger to get booked for punching him in the back of the head. Ings had put a free header over the bar in the first half, and Long shot high over after the break. Long was somewhat lucky to escape a penalty appeal in stoppage time when Marcos Alonso went down theatrically after a push from the striker, and referee Jon Moss waved play on.
Hasenhuttl went for broke in the final minutes, sending on Charlie Austin in a bid to steal a win but in the end they settled for a valuable point, and it was clear their small band of travelling supporters were a lot happier than the home fans.
CHELSEA: Kepa 6; Azpilicueta 6, Rudiger 6, Luiz 7, Alonso 6; Kante 7, Jorginho 6, Barkley 5 (Fabregas 68); Willian 6 (Loftus-Cheek 37), Morata 4, Hazard 8.
SOUTHAMPTON: Gunn 9; Valery 6, Bednarek 6, Vestergard 7, Yoshida 6, Soares 6; Romeu 6, Ward-Prowse 7, Armstrong 6 (Austin 88); Redmond 6 (Stephens 90+4); Ings 5 (Long 46).